“Design like you give a damn.” That’s the motto of Architecture for Humanity (AFH), a nonprofit organization founded in 1999 to seek and promote architectural and design solutions to global, social, and humanitarian crises. AFH was developed over many nights and weekends by two young professionals, Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr. All it took was two committed 25-year olds, a good idea (inspired by one of their thesis projects), and a credit card. |
Today’s issue of ArchVoices is a reprint of an article about AFH, published last week in The New York Times. AFH has also been featured on NPR, the BBC, CNN International (last weekend), and other print, radio, and television outlets around the world. However, despite all the public press for architecture and design that AFH has generated, this 501(c)3 nonprofit has yet to receive a penny from a single U.S.-based architecture firm or from the national architecture organizations. Instead, the majority of the AFH’s funds have come from individual design students and recent graduates.
Over 200 young professionals have “applied” to work for AFH in the past few months. Few of them probably realize that AFH’s “office” is a 400-square foot studio apartment in New York City. However, AFH is always working to attract new volunteers and supporters, and next month it will officially launch a new program called AFH Meetups in cities across the country. The premise is that a group of people will gather for a good time, while also supporting a good cause: AFH. All that’s asked of meetup attendees is that they contribute the cost of the first drink they would have otherwise had that night.
If you’d like to put some meaning into your regular post-work or post-studio happy hours, email Cameron. Each local organizer will receive a “Design like you give a damn/Architecture for Humanity” t-shirt and will be responsible for running the local meetup and any other activities they wish. And until that one grant pans out or one firm or organization steps forward, these small gatherings will be sustaining an internationally-heralded effort, appropriately titled Architecture for Humanity.
Read on below, visit the AFH website, and “Design like you give a damn.”
This article originally appeared in the August 28, 2003 edition of The New York Times. It is reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher.
Designing for the Dispossessed
By Alastair Gordon
At age 29, Cameron Sinclair was among the youngest speakers at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colo., last week. He nonetheless brought a full auditorium to its feet Thursday morning with a review of his work with Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit organization he started from his Manhattan studio apartment with a scattering of volunteers and a shoestring budget.
Over the last four years, Mr. Sinclair’s group has helped generate programs and designs for disaster relief in 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Kosovo and South Africa.
Mr. Sinclair’s talk, peppered with well-rehearsed lines (“All I ask is that they design like they give a damn”) was tailor-made for a design conference that took global concerns with safety as its theme.
“He has been a mainstay and hero of the conference,” said Paola Antonelli, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a chairwoman of the conference. “He’s asking architects to take a risk and forget about immediate profits.”
Mr. Sinclair’s appearance alongside more established design figures is evidence of a shift, particularly among students and younger designers, toward social responsibility.
“Would someone like me have been invited to speak here five years ago?” Mr. Sinclair said. “Probably not. But a lot of younger architects don’t want to design doorknobs in boutique hotels anymore. They want to be engaged, they want to help find solutions to critical problems.”
Of course, Mr. Sinclair is not the only one generating designs for relief. The Rural Studio, based in Auburn, Ala., has helped provide housing for the rural poor since 1993, and Shelter for Life, a volunteer group based in Oshkosh, Wis., has built houses in Afghanistan. But through persistence, personal charm and a marriage to a journalist who writes press releases and grant proposals, Mr. Sinclair has managed to make himself the center of a global network of designers, engineers and relief groups.
Mr. Sinclair and his wife, Kate Stohr, 29, have gone a long way with limited means. He was laid off from his job as a project architect at Gensler a year ago, and has devoted himself to Architecture for Humanity full time ever since. “Here we are doing health programs around the world,” he said. “And we can’t afford health insurance for ourselves.” Four days after 9/11, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees called Mr. Sinclair, he said, to tell him he was on a list of people that could be asked to help with the coming relief effort in Afghanistan. “I told them I hope it’s a long list,” he said, “because I’m a 28-year-old alone in my apartment.” (He put them in contact with architects and engineers in Pakistan and other neighboring countries.)
During the 1960’s and early 70’s, young architects as a rule felt almost obliged to address issues like affordable housing and community planning. But by the time Mr. Cameron arrived at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London in the late 1990’s, these concerns had given way to a preoccupation with signature design and theory.
“I was the black sheep of my class,” said Mr. Sinclair, who designed housing for the homeless as his thesis project. “My fellow students were more interested in getting into Wallpaper magazine.”
He does not feel like a black sheep anymore. In the past two months, more than 120 people have applied to work for him as unpaid interns, most of whom had to be turned away.
“A lot of my generation is disillusioned,” Mr. Sinclair said.
“You finish school, start with a big firm, and become a CAD monkey working in a little cubicle,” he added, referring to computer-animated design. “You’re told that only one out of a hundred will make it as a name architect. That’s depressing.”
In 1999, with a budget of just $700, Mr. Cameron held a competition to design transitional housing for refugees returning to Kosovo. He received nearly 300 entries from 30 countries, including a modern yurt built around a central column by the Oakland-based firm Basak Altan Design. “Refugee shelter is usually a last-minute, ad hoc affair with little in the way of advance planning,” Mr. Sinclair said. His goal was to provide shelters where returning refugees could live for years while rebuilding homes.
The jury, which included the architects Tod Williams, Billie Tsien, and Steven Holl, picked 10 winners. Five prototypes were built, including a structure made of paper by Shigeru Ban of Tokyo and a shipping container lined with plywood by the Australian architect Sean Godsell.
Gans & Jelacic, a firm in New York, built a prototype of their entry, a triangular structure that pops up from a container with the help of a standard car jack.
I-Beam Design, another New York firm, designed a shelter made from wooden shipping pallets. “We were looking for a simple solution and realized that supplies sent to disaster areas are often shipped on these pallets,” said Azin Valy of I-Beam. “We wanted a universal system that a child could put together.”
Ms. Valy and her partner, Suzan Wines, built a prototype in an abandoned lot in the South Bronx. Within weeks, a homeless man had moved in; and a week after that, the city had torn it down.
For all his persuasive ways, Mr. Sinclair has so far failed to actually build anything in Kosovo. He is among the first to acknowledge the failure. “We architects enjoy a pat on the back, but unless you build it, it’s just an idea,” he said.
However thoughtful they may be, designs intended for developing countries often fail to consider local conditions. Muslim countries, for example, typically require separate facilities for men and women. Steel shipping containers, used in several submissions, may, in fact, be unsuitable in tropical climates. And structures that are hard to assemble are of limited use when recipients are largely women, children and older men.
“It’s important that architects consult with the beneficiaries, which seems obvious, but this doesn’t always occur,” said Erin Mooney, deputy director of a project on displaced people for the Brookings Institution and Johns Hopkins University.
Gans & Jelacic were one of the few who went into the field. Deborah Gans attended the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University while her partner, Matthew Jelacic, visited refugee camps in Bosnia. There, tents outside Sarajevo had collapsed under snowfall.
Mr. Sinclair and Ms. Stohr married while organizing the Kosovo competition, and they left shortly afterward for a month-long honeymoon in South Africa. “The honeymoon lasted two days,” Mr. Sinclair said. While his wife began reporting an article on a rape epidemic in South Africa, later published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mr. Sinclair met with urban planners and visited shantytowns.
Two and a half years later, in May of 2002, Mr. Sinclair staged a competition for mobile medical clinics that could be used to treat AIDS in Africa. He received more than 530 submissions from 51 countries. (An exhibition of entries is touring five countries, ending with South Africa.)
The proposal that won first place, by jury, is a self-sufficient clinic with a satellite dish, solar power and a water collection system. The clinic, designed by Khras Architects of Denmark, would be made from a lightweight metal skeleton with natural materials added for local texture.
“Instead of one solution we wanted to come up with a system,” said Mads Hansen, a member of the Khras team. “In Africa, especially in remote areas, you don’t just get a spare part from down the road.”
Mr. Sinclair is trying to raise $20,000 to send four finalists to meet with doctors and relief workers in South Africa before building prototypes.
“Architects pride themselves on having a vision of the future, but in this case they’re not rising to the crisis,” said Rodney Harber, an architect in Durban, South Africa, who has worked on AIDS-related projects for 10 years. “Cameron has made a real contribution. His competitions and Web site have helped to stimulate a global dialog.”
Mr. Sinclair and Ms. Stohr see their role over the next few years as advocates, shepherding their various projects to completion. “I’m hoping to one day watch the sun set in Africa while we sit on the porch of our mobile health clinic,” Ms. Stohr said.
Copyright 2003 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.
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